April 28 (UPI) -- In his first address before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, President Joe Biden explained how his sweeping infrastructure plan will help Americans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and compete globally.
One half of the plan, the American Families Plan, includes nearly $2 trillion in federal funding for items like universal prekindergarten, two years of tuition-free community college, an expanded family and medical leave program and monthly payments of at least $250 to low-income parents.
"Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century," Biden said of the amount of free education provided by the federal government. "That's why my American Families Plan guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America, starting as early as we can."
Biden said the plan will also provide access to "quality affordable child care," guaranteeing that low- and middle-income families won't pay more than 7% of their income for high-quality care for children up to the age of 5, as well as providing up to 12 weeks of paid leave and family medical leave.
"No one should have to choose between a job and a paycheck or taking care of themselves and their loved ones or parent or spouse or child," he said.
The families plan would be funded largely by a tax increase for the nation's most wealthy over 15 years. The White House unveiled details of the plan early Wednesday.
"I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000 but it's time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to begin to pay their fair share. Just their fair share," Biden said Wednesday.
Biden acknowledged the historic moment in the opening of his speech, addressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman to serve in the role, seated on the dais behind him.
"Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it's about time," Biden said.
The president also outlined the other half of his major infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, which will place a focus on modernizing transportation infrastructure including roads, bridges and airports.
On Wednesday, the president pledged that the plan would provide relief to Americans who have found themselves out of work as a result of the pandemic.
"The American Jobs Plan will help millions of Americans get back to their jobs and back to their careers," he said. "Two million women have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic. Two million. And too often because they couldn't get the care they needed to care for their child or care for an elderly parent who needs help."
He also said the investments in the plan "will be guided by one principle, 'buy American, buy American.'"
"American tax dollars are going to be used to buy American products, made in America to create American jobs," Biden said. "That is the way that it is supposed to be and it will be in this administration."
He further highlighted the American Jobs Plan's provisions to build energy-efficient buildings and homes, install 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations along American highways and encourage farmers to plant cover crops, declaring that "when I think climate change, I think jobs."
"There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can't be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason. None," he said. "There's no reason why American workers can't lead the world in production of electric vehicles and batteries. There's no reason. We have the capacity. We have the brightest, best-trained people in the world."
Under the jobs plan, Biden said he will task Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts on expanding broadband Internet to create jobs "connecting every American with high-speed Internet" and bring broadband to rural America.
"This will help our kids and businesses succeed in a 21st-century economy," he said.
The address at the U.S. Capitol looked like no other in recent memory -- as only 200 people were invited to attend, in addition to members of Congress, due to COVID-19 awareness.
"There's still more work to do to beat this virus, we can't let our guard down. But tonight I can say because of you, the American people, our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history has been one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen," Biden said.
During his speech, Biden touted the fact that the United States has administered 220 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in his first 100 days and at least half of U.S. adults have received at least one shot, while delivering doses to pharmacies and community health centers to ensure the vaccine is widely available.
"Everyone over the age of 16, everyone, is now eligible to get vaccinated right now, right away," he said. "Go get vaccinated, America. Go and get the vaccination. They're available. You're eligible now."
Biden also called on Congress to pass multiple pieces of legislation, including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, urging its approval before the one-year anniversary of Floyd's death on May 25, 2020.
He recalled one of his meetings with Floyd's daughter where she said "my daddy changed the world," following his death after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted on all three counts against him last week, knelt on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes.
"After the conviction of George Floyd's murderer, we can see how right she was if we have the courage to act in Congress," he said. "We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans. Now is our opportunity to make some real progress."
In the wake of multiple shootings throughout the nation in recent months, Biden pushed for Congress to pass legislation to tighten gun restrictions.
"I need not tell anyone this, but gun violence has become an epidemic in America," he said. "Look, I don't want to become more confrontational. We need more Senate Republicans to join the overall majority of Democratic colleagues and close the loopholes required in background check purchases of guns. We need a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines."
He also called for lawmakers to "end our exhausting war over immigration," including passing legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as minors, known as Dreamers.
"For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform and done nothing about it. It's time to fix it," he said.
Other policies Biden advocated on Wednesday included a $15 minimum wage, the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Equality Act and funding for the National Institute of Health to create an advanced research project agency to develop treatments for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes.
"So many of us have deceased sons, daughters and relatives who died of cancer. I can think of no more worthy investment. I know of nothing that is more bipartisan. So let's end cancer as we know it. It's within our power. It's within our power to do it," he said.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black GOP lawmaker in the chamber, delivered the Republican response to the president's address, saying Biden is pulling the nation apart.
Scott accused Biden of failing to follow through on his campaign promises to reach across the aisle and govern for all Americans regardless of who they voted for, citing the use of the budget reconciliation process to pass his $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package without Republican support.
"Our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes," he said. "We need policies and progress that bring us closer together. But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further and further apart."
Additionally, Scott criticized Democrats for shutting down his police reform bill and accusing the party of using the issue of race to divide Americans.
"Today, kids are being taught that the color of their skin defines them again, and if they look a certain way, they're an oppressor. From colleges to corporations, to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven't made any progress at all by doubling down on the divisions we've worked so hard to heal. You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly, America is not a racist country," he said.
Scott also took aim at Biden's accomplishments on COVID-19, stating that his administration "inherited a tide that had already turned," citing the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed public-private partnership that facilitated the development of vaccines as the reason "our country is flooded with safe and effective vaccines."
He further said the Biden administration should have done more to have quickened the reopening of public schools.
"Millions of kids lost a year of learning when they could not afford to lose a single day. Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of the future," he said. "Our public schools should have opened months ago. Other countries did. Private and religious schools did. Science has shown for months that schools are safe. But too often powerful grownups set science aside and kids like me were left behind."